June 9, 2011 - 12:45 pm
By James A. Barnett, Jr. | Chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau

Early warnings save lives. This was demonstrated recently and dramatically during the major earthquake and tsunami that devastated Eastern Japan. Except for Japan’s early warning systems, loss of life would have been much higher. Here at the FCC, we have a series of initiatives to ensure that similarly effective alerting systems are available here in the U.S.

A new era in alerting will commence on November 9, at 2:00 p.m. EST, when the FCC and our federal partners, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the National Weather Service, will conduct the first ever top-to-bottom, nation-wide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS). This test is vital to ensuring that the EAS, the primary alerting system available to the American public, works as designed.

In existence since 1994, the EAS is a media communications-based alerting system designed to transmit emergency alerts and warnings to the American public at the national, state and local levels. Broadcasters, satellite radio and television service providers, cable television and wireline video providers, are all required to participate. Each year, they transmit thousands of alerts and warnings to the American public regarding weather threats, child abductions, and many other types of emergencies. EAS participants provide a significant and largely unsung service to the nation by providing vital information in crises, and the system is designed to work when nothing else does.

Although FCC rules require local and state components of the EAS to be tested on a weekly and monthly basis, the system has never been tested nationally end-to-end. If public safety officials need to send an alert or warning to a large region of the United States, in the case of a major earth quake and tsunami on the West Coast, for example, or even to the entire country, we need to know that the system will work as intended. Only a top-down, simultaneous test of all components of the EAS can tell us this.

For the test, FEMA will trigger the EAS “cascade” architecture by transmitting the EAS code used for national level emergencies to the first level of broadcast stations in the national-level of the EAS, which in turn will rebroadcast the alert to the general public, as well as to the next level of EAS participants monitoring them. This should continue through all levels of the system until the alert has been distributed throughout the entire county.

All EAS participants must report back on the results of this test. FEMA and the FCC will study these results carefully to assess problems and, in coordination with EAS stakeholders, devise remedies. We will likely conduct the test periodically to ensure that the EAS is, and remains, functional. I am very proud of the work that our Alerting Team at the FCC and our counterparts at our federal partners have done to make this possible, and I appreciate the work that our EAS Participants in the broadcast, cable and satellite industries have done and will do to make our nation safer and more secure.

For further announcements of all significant developments affecting national testing for both EAS Participants and the general public, please regularly visit the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.